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Flood danger recedes along Susquehanna

THE BALTIMORE SUN

With a second day of sunshine and water levels along the Susquehanna River peaking before dinnertime, Maryland appeared to be on the way to recovery yesterday from this week's torrential rains and flooding.

Operators of Conowingo Dam, who expected to open enough floodgates to trigger a voluntary evacuation in the riverfront town of Port Deposit, instead saw the Susquehanna calming, and there was hope that the water would begin to recede overnight.

"People will sleep a little easier knowing the worst is over," said Port Deposit's deputy mayor, Kerry Abrams.

In Montgomery County, meanwhile, about 2,200 people who had been evacuated from their homes near the leaking earthen dam at Lake Needwood were told late last night that it was safe to return.

In Frederick County, searchers found the bodies of two teenage boys who apparently drowned in Little Pipe Creek after leaving their homes to watch rising waters. That brought to six the number of Maryland deaths blamed on the rains and flooding.

Maryland's congressional delegation asked the Bush administration for assistance, requesting help from federal agriculture and small-business agencies, and from the Army Corps of Engineers to deal with the damage.

Among the last in Maryland to feel the effects of the heavy rain were a handful of Port Deposit residents whose backyards were submerged under nearly 3 feet of water yesterday afternoon.

Lloyd "Eddie" Quinn, 16, and friend Eric Kuhs, 15, are used to venturing over a set of railroad tracks and climbing into the Susquehanna to swim on hot days. But yesterday, the river came to them, gushing through a railroad underpass and into Quinn's backyard.

"We have a slight problem," Quinn, standing waist-deep in water, told his aunt. He and Kuhs worked to recover as many items as possible from a backyard storage room - a keyboard, a light-up picture of the Virgin Mary and several porcelain vases.

The Quinns and their neighbors experience such flooding several times a year, they said, but not typically in June.

Rumors about dam

Rumors about how many of Conowingo's 53 floodgates might be opened were the talk of the town, and officials kept residents informed by handing out fliers door to door with updates.

About 4 p.m., officials said the river was cresting as 24 gates were open; 26 would bring a warning siren for a voluntary evacuation below the dam.

The water inched high enough to close a four-mile stretch of Route 222 and prompted the evacuation of a half-dozen homes. A handwritten sign jokingly said "Swim at risk $1.00" in a flooded downtown parking lot that had been dubbed the "Port Pool."

Some blamed the hydroelectric dam's operator, Exelon Power, for the surge in water.

From a stone step in his backyard, Donald Poist, 75, a former town mayor, watched as his new $5,000 furnace became submerged and said Exelon should have started a gradual release of water sooner to minimize problems.

"I'm a lifelong resident, and I've always had a problem with the dam. There's a lack of compassion there," Poist said.

A spokesman for Exelon said federal regulations require the company to keep a minimum water level behind the dam.

Cooperation with local officials has improved substantially since 1996, when PECO Energy Corp., which then operated the dam, opened 39 of the gates and sent several feet of icy water flooding into downtown, said Ben Armstrong, an Exelon spokesman.

Boat ramps closed

About four miles downstream, where boaters are expected to gather for an annual Independence Day fireworks celebration in Havre de Grace this weekend, boat ramps in city-owned parks were ordered closed until further notice, and Harford County officials advised boaters to stay clear of the upper Chesapeake Bay.

"We're seeing all kinds of debris, including trees, tree trunks and wood," said Harford County emergency planner Linda Ploener. "It's making navigation treacherous."

Soggy conditions were blamed for the spill of 52,000 gallons of raw sewage into a wooded area from a sanitary sewer line in the Constant Friendship section of Abingdon, the latest of several rain-related sewage spills in Central Maryland.

The amount of water seeping from the Lake Needwood Dam near Rockville was not increasing yesterday.

County officials had been concerned about seven leaks that were discovered Tuesday evening in the 45-year-old earthen dam. On Wednesday, workers covered the holes with a gravel blanket, a tarpaulin covered with sand and gravel that they hoped would be heavy enough to prevent the water from seeping though, while engineers tried to find the source of the leaks and come up with a more permanent solution.

At one point, the lake was 22 feet above normal. But a release of water yesterday brought the level down 4 feet, reducing pressure on the dam, county officials said.

Montgomery County Chief Administrative Officer Bruce Romer said at a news conference late yesterday that the area's evacuation was lifted. "Not only do we feel it's safe, but all of the technical experts that we've consulted throughout, including the Maryland Department of the Environment, [have] warranted to the safety," Romer said.

He said there would be an "extensive evaluation phase" to determine what long-term repairs would be needed.

Five of the six deaths in Maryland occurred in Frederick County, where three people were swept away Tuesday in Middle Creek, east of Myersville, after jumping or being swept from the back of a pickup truck. The other death resulted from a one-car crash Monday on rain-slick U.S. 50 near Bowie.

Yesterday, about 100 friends joined in the search for Michael White, 14, and Thomas Plunkard, 16, friends from Ladiesburg in eastern Frederick County who had disappeared Tuesday afternoon after indicating that they were going out to observe the flooding.

When they did not return, Michael's father went searching for them but found only his son's bike and some of the boy's clothes on a muddy bank near Route 194.

The extensive search that began Tuesday night turned up the boys' bodies.

Michael's was found by a friend about 10:30 a.m. on the creek's south bank just west of Route 194, said Michael Dmuchowski, a spokesman for Frederick County Fire and Rescue. Search dogs found Thomas' body shortly after 2 p.m. about three miles downstream near Detour, said Sgt. Russell Newell, a state police spokesman.

The bodies were taken to the medical examiner's office in Baltimore for autopsies.

The boys enjoyed the outdoors and often swam in the usually calm waters of Little Pipe Creek just above a 3-foot-high concrete dam, said Michael's father, Thomas White. A rusty railroad bridge crosses the creek, neat rows of cornstalks flourish along the banks, and a rope swing is a lure for local children.

"Kids come up here quite frequently under normal conditions," said State Police 1st Sgt. Chris Sasse of the Frederick barracks. "But it was not a good choice on Tuesday and probably [will not be] for the next week until things settle down."

The boys, who attended Walkersville High School, had played on the same soccer team, which was coached by Michael's father. Michael had joined a travel soccer team in Frederick, was active in his church and worked at the McDonald's restaurant in Walkersville, where his mother, Cheryl White, is a manager.

Kimberly Plunkard, Thomas' mother, fighting tears, said her son was a great kid.

"He knew everybody in the neighborhood and how much they loved him," she said.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Laura McCandlish and Anica Butler, and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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